Perfect example of how to handle a difficult journalist question

Louis Heren, veteran post-war Foreign Correspondent of The Times newspaper, famously said that in his job as a reporter seeking truth, he always asked himself of interviewees “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”. This underlies why journalists ask challenging questions and participants on our media training courses desperately want to learn how to manage them.

We have started using another great example from an interview last week on the Today Programme in our media training sessions. The Today programme’s Business Editor, Simon Jack, is a great interviewer. He plans his interviews well and usually has a zinger question that can discombobulate the unwary interviewee.

The interviewee in this case study – Melanie Dawes, CEO of media regulator, OFCOM – perfectly handles his spicy curve ball question. She did it by being firm, not being defensive and by appealing emotionally and reasonably to what the audience instinctively knows to be true.

The interview was about an OFCOM report showing that woman felt less safe while online and are more distressed by hate speech and trolling (scroll to the 1 hour and 51 minute point).

Simon Jack asked nine questions in the six minute interview of which eight challenged whether OFCOM could effect meaningful change. Having listened to Melanie Dawes’ robust response (and a nice touch when she remined him that 75% of female journalists had experienced online abuse, up from a quarter seven years ago), it was his eighth question which sought to close the trap:

“So you contend that you’ve got the staff, money and powers you need so if there’s a further problem it’s your fault.” Ouch.

Melanie handled it with aplomb. Instead of either getting defensive or avoiding the question, she addressed the central trap with a firm no, and encouraged the audience to think more widely than the hostile question:

“No, look that’s putting in a bit too strongly, Simon [you could hear her smiling which improved the timbre of her voice]. Clearly this is an industry that’s not been regulated yet. It’s grown enormously fast and it’s got a lot to do to change [reasonable]. We will be holding companies to account now on behalf of the public [OFCOM is on the listener’s side] … but it’s on all of us actually. In terms of the experiences that women have online it’s a mirror to some of the wider problems in society around violence against women and girls and an undercurrent of misogyny [few would deny that] that gets amplified online. I think it’s for everybody to think about [reasonable].”

It didn’t leave Simon Jack anywhere to go and the interview ended on a random question about the BBC’s CBeebies childrens channel moving online (which she had prepared for).

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